The Surprisingly Perfect (Almost) Season of the Knicks

Before tonight’s match-up against the Warriors, the New York Knicks sit at 24-37 on the year. Safe to say, that this record will read 24-38 by the end of the night. After a promising start that had speculators wondering if Kristaps Porzingis could be this year’s scoring champion, the Knicks have floundered. Tim Hardaway Jr., the team’s big off-season acquisition, kicked off the slump when he went down with a stress fracture in his leg. With the losing trend well-established, injury was added to injury when Kristaps himself went down with a torn ACL. However, despite this trail of misery and woe, this season has been a blessing in disguise for the much-maligned Knicks franchise.

The Knicks were never supposed to succeed this season. The narrative on opening night was one of a team looking to tank and add another piece next to their transcendent unicorn, Porzingis. When Porzingis decided to come out of the gate rattling off 30 point games and swatting shots like Mutombo, expectations quickly inflated. The Knicks were all of a sudden fighting for a playoff spot, something which KP himself vocally desired. But this was never the plan. Porzingis was showing exactly the mindset needed for greatness, but at the same time killing the team’s future. The impossibility of riding one incredible talent evidences itself as the 30+ minutes-a-night load placed on the lithe Latvian’s shoulders slowly ground him into the dust. Finally, tragically, the heroic Porzingis succumbed to an ACL tear, ending his tilt at the playoff windmill.

All that said, the worries about Porzingis’ energy and injury are far overblown. In an article on The Ringer fantasizing about future all-stars (a great article, check it out), Danny Chau breaks down who he sees comprising the all-star game of 2023. On The Ringer NBA Show podcast, Chau mentions that he almost left Kristaps off the squad due to the injury concerns, yet Joel Embiid was a lock for the team. This is truly ludicrous. Kristaps’ injury came on a very athletic play when he leapt into the heavens and came down on an opponent’s foot. This was not a non-contact injury, it was not his body breaking down, it was simply wrong place, wrong time. And that fatigue Porzingis mentioned? Maybe it’s because he’s a 7′ 3″ player on a team with no other scoring options who is being relied upon to carry the offensive load AND defend the rim for a porous defense. The injury will make Porzingis more circumspect on the court. He will learn to pick and choose his spots. You won’t see KP flying in on every put-back dunk or block opportunity, putting himself at risk. He will come back stronger, smarter and, thanks to the lack of his talents on the court for the rest of the year, to a better team with a talented young core.

The absence of Porzingis bears another silver-lining beyond the obvious draft implications. The Knicks are now sporting three top-10 pick 20-something guards on their roster. The additions of Trey Burke (9th overall in 2013) from the G-League affiliate and Emmanuelle Mudiay (7th overall 2015) from the Nuggets have added much-needed youth to the Knicks’ back court. Without Porzingis these young players, along with Frank Ntilikina (8th overall 2017) and Hardaway Jr. will need to learn how to work together effectively and learn how to play when they can’t throw it to their 7′ 3″ unicorn with the shot clock waning. There’s enough talent on the court that hopefully one or two of the young-guns get the reps they need to reveal a solid player who can play a role moving forward.

We also were fortunate enough to see just exactly how good a coach Jeff Hornacek can be with his full complement of players. While returns of late have been meager, we saw a Knicks team much-improved on defense at the beginning of the year. Players were talking, moving, and just flat-out trying more than any Knicks team I can remember seeing in the past few years. Hornacek proved his mettle with a young Suns team, and looks to have the golden touch again with a precocious Knicks squad. The only question is whether inveterate dum-dum James Dolan will stick his nose where it doesn’t belong in another get-great quick scheme doomed to fail.

Finally, we come to the most obvious and tantalizing benefit of the Knicks’ current woes; the draft pick. With this years draft laden with (supposed) blue-chippers, and with the lottery rules changing in subsequent years to discount the value of tanking, the Knicks are seizing the initiative and gettin’ bad while the gettin’ bad is good. Picture, if you will, a 7′ 3″ Porzingis standing next to the 7′ 1″ Deandre Ayton, daring any puny mortal to challenge them? Or, mayhaps, imagine Porzingis knocking down 3 after 3 as Trae Young eviscerates and kicks again and again. Now, those two players are long shots, but there’s no reason not to dream. There’s also Mo Bamba, Collin Sexton, Luka Doncic, and so many others who could make Porzingis’ playoff dreams a reality.

If I could go back in time and save KP’s ACL would I? Absolutely. No matter how you try and cope with the disappointment it’s still the one hope the Knicks have had in my NBA lifetime going down with an injury that affects each athlete uniquely, and sometimes catastrophically. However, with things as they are, I’m sanguine. The young Knicks will continue to work and cohere under Hornacek while inevitably losing games due to the growing  pains young teams endure. Meanwhile, KP will silently be doing everything in his God-given power to get back on the court while the Knicks front-office, a front-office long excelling at only drafting in the second round due to poor trades, will be combing the college ranks for a new running mate for the unicorn. The skies are dark, but on the horizon, the Knicks see light.

 

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